Updated: Apr 9
Agricultural reforms hold a stout importance in India. With 70% of the population relying on the success of the agricultural produce and allied activities for their survival, India is primarily an agrarian economy. In September 2020, the Parliament rushed three bills to augment reforms in the agriculture sector of the country. The passing of these reforms sparked widespread protests of farmers in the country with demands of repealing the laws and legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price for farmers produce. This blog post traces the reasons for the farmers' agitation and resentment towards these reform bills by drawing out the unparliamentary and untimely manner in which these reforms were passed. It also highlights how the reforms favour a capitalist structure thereby jeopardising the rural economy. It further traces on the reforms being in contravention with the country’s international obligations.
UNDERMINING THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS OF LAW MAKING
The law-making process in a parliamentary democracy ought to be consultative and deliberative in order to stand on the ideals of the democratic government envisioned by the lawmakers. However, in the instance of the farmers’ bills these ideals were shelved by the government as these reforms were introduced as Ordinances in June when both the Houses of Parliament were not in session and the country was grappling with the fallout of a global pandemic. Later, the reforms were presented in the Monsoon session as bills which after being passed by the Lower House were passed by just a voice vote despite the Opposition demanding a division vote in the Upper House.
This backdoor mechanism of enacting the reforms disregards the concepts of legislative scrutiny by the democratically elected members of the Parliament. These laws, therefore, being enacted without any deliberation and discussion makes the process adopted antithetical to the spirit of democracy and the principles enshrined in the Constitution.
ANALYSIS OF THE NEW REFORMS
Article 39 of the Indian Constitution directs the State policy approach towards ensuring adequate means of livelihood, distribution of material resources towards common good, and assuring restriction against concentration of wealth in the hands of few individuals. Additionally, Article 51 provides that the state will respect and uphold international law and treaty obligations. But the agriculture reforms, summarised as follows, which were introduced by the government, run contrary to the provisions laid out in the Constitution: -
· The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act provides for setting up a mechanism for private buyers to purchase outside the regulated markets without the imposition of taxes.
· The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, allows for corporate houses to enter into agreements of contract farming with the farmers.
· The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act removes government regulations on trade and storage of goods like edible oils, onions, pulses and other food grains, except during extraordinary situations such as famines etc.
Despite being advocated as a breakthrough for the advancement of the agricultural sector, these reforms are hollow promises as they tend to ignore the ground realities and needs of the sector in the broad aspect.
Ignoring the Deep Pockets Theory
While introducing the provisions of contract farming, the reforms place two parties with unequal influence and means together. On one hand, there are big corporate houses with well devised monetary, infrastructural and legal structures. While on the other, are small farmers who have little education and no financial backing. This therefore increases the chance of exploitation of the farmers who rely on yearly income, contracting with these corporate houses, that can handle losses initially in the look for long term profits.
The concerns voiced out against these reforms are not of a localised nature with the growing instance of land inequality and capitalist takeover of the primary sector. The new laws pave the way for a free market in agriculture, where the monopoly of Agriculture Market Committees (AMC) is diluted to bring liberalization in agriculture. This will give opportunities for private corporations to take over the sector and render loss of livelihood for the marginal farmers and farm labourers.
No recourse for Judicial Redressal
Adding to the woes of the one sided deal, the jurisdiction of a civil court is replaced with the authority of a sub-divisional board, which is based upon heavy bureaucratic procedure thereby curbing the right to seek judicial redressal of any dispute arising during the corporate farming agreements. This reflects an imbalanced approach being adopted by the authorities, as the corporate houses have the means and resources to bend the bureaucratic machinery to their will and the small farmers will be helpless when seeking justice with their meagre means.
Right to Natural Resources
The new farm laws are aimed at regulating the farmers autonomy on the sale and purchase of the produce, relaxing the restriction on stocking of the farm produce, and enabling provisions for contractual farming in India. This is in contravention to the farmers economic right to use their natural resources at their own discretion and dispose of them without any prejudice, which is enshrined in the provisions of Article 1 and Article 47 of the ICCPR. The government emphasizes that these laws will boister the farming sector by increasing the incomes of the farmers and technologically assisting them. However, in contradiction this move will bring downfall to the most crucial sector of the country with corporate houses gaining strongholds and pushing small farmers into landlessness. It will threaten the very means of subsistence for the farmers as their use of land would be regulated by the controlling hand of the corporate structure.
Minimum Support Price (MSP)
Minimum Support Price is a government regulated price framework for the producers to sell their goods in the market so that their well being is not hampered owing to the changing market prices. Presently, almost 70% of the farmers have small landholdings and rely heavily on government purchasing of produce in accordance with the MSP which acts as an assurance that the farmer will get above the input cost for his produce.
The new reforms allow the establishment of a parallel market regulated by market pricing and no government regulation for the farmers to sell their crop. With these reforms the state gives a free hand to private agencies to control the prices in the food market as corporations have only profit motives as a primary consideration for their actions. The ramifications of this directly jeopardises the market system by allowing the domination of big entities and thereby threatening the income of marginal farmers.
Public Distribution System (PDS)
India being a developing country, is still working towards self-sustenance and removing the problems such as poverty and hunger for a large number of the population. A large percentage of the economically weaker section relies on government schemes and subsidiaries for their survival. Corporatisation of agriculture would have detrimental effects on various government schemes, like the PDS aimed at achieving the goal of food security for the economically weaker section of the population would collapse if left at the mercy of profit minting corporations.
This would be because as per the reforms suggested the government would not be able to regulate the storage of various commodities, which in turn would affect their price. Additionally, with the parallel establishment of private markets the procurement by the government would reduce considerably. Therefore, this will result in the gradual constriction of social welfare schemes and will also jeopardise the objective of securing national food security for the country.
Economic Rights ensure adequate sustenance in terms of education, health, housing, security, and employment and form the basic rights to live a life with dignity and to ensure public participation. Under the provisions of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, India is obligated to ensure economic independence and basic minimum standard of living to all citizens of the country.
Furthermore, India in 2018 signed and ratified The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDRPOWRA) aimed at recognising the efforts of the rural population towards the development of the nation, while also raising alarm regarding the poor standard of living of the farmers.
The government by formulating the laws without any prior consultation with the farmer unions or the farming states of the nation, has contravened the provisions of the UNDRPOWRA. Such decisions directly violate the livelihood of the farmers, and the farmers had no input of their ground realities into the decision-making process. Therefore, by enacting new farm laws without consultation with the farmers, which takes away economic interdependence of the farmers, Indian Government is in direct contravention of its treaty obligations.
The reforms present a lopsided offer tilted in favour of big corporations and sidelines the interests of the farmers as the primary stakeholders. The provisions jeopardise the economic rights of the farmers in the long run. They fail to address the ground realities of the sector. Further, there have been numerous instances of fraud under the fold of contract farming, leaving farmers helpless and economically constrained.
Despite this, the reforms don’t provide for a speedy and unbiased redressal mechanism in the event of malpractices by the corporate entities. Without a proper safety net in case of exploitation, the farmers are left vulnerable and with no backup for the sale of their produce. They would then in order to prevent the perishable produce to go waste, be coerced into selling the same at lower rates and thus incurring losses.
India has witnessed approximately 3,00,000 farmers’ suicide due to agrarian crisis resulting from heavy debts and crop failures. Therefore, the need for agricultural reforms has been long felt to improve the standard of living of the population dependent on it. But in order to bring about productive reforms the government instead of a top to bottom approach should engage in deliberative discourse with the stakeholders of rural India.
Title Image: The Indian Manifesto
This article has been written by Nyamat Sekhon & Sukhman Sandhu. They are both students of law from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala, Punjab, India.